Friday, 28 September 2012

Writing with Year Eight at Icknield Community College

On Tuesday I visited Icknield Community College in Watlington to talk to Year Eight about 15 Days Without a Head and my route to becoming an author. (I also had the chance to share the cover artwork for Waiting for Gonzo for the first time!) 

The day's events included the opportunity to do some writing with three groups of students. We had some great discussions and the workshops produced a number of excellent and very funny pieces, including one about the horrors of going clubbing with your gran! (There's a great comic novel in that idea, I'm certain.) 

Here are a few pics from the day …

A fantastic display greeted me on arrival in the library!

Telling stories with Year Eight students

In the library with Beth, Seren, Luke and Sam.

Thanks to all the staff and students at Icknield Community College for making me so welcome, with special mention to Penny Didcock, Natalie Wheeler and Mr Hunter. Thanks also to The Book House in Thame for supplying copies of 15 Days Without a Head and to Beth (pictured above) for managing the sales.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A Summer of Shorts! My Reading Challenge Book Reviews

I don't often get requests, so when Tjala asked me to do a post on what I thought of the books I'd picked for my Summer Reading Challenge, it sounded like a good idea. Except that I have to start by admitting that I only managed to read three of the seven books on my pile. The thing is, you see, I got distracted … by Losing It – a collection of short stories edited by Keith Gray.

Reading this made me wonder why short story collections aren't more popular. We're always being told that the average attention span is getting shorter – particularly among young people. Whether or not this is true, short stories are ideally placed to provide a way into books for readers who are daunted by, or simply haven't the time or patience to commit to, a three hundred page novel. And this collection is a great place to start. 

I bought Losing It because I'm a fan of a number of the contributing authors: Keith Gray, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess and Jenny Valentine hadn't disappointed in the past, so I was confident I would like their stories included here. Given the title and the connecting theme of the collection "all revolving around having sex for the first time" I thought I knew what to expect. Just in case you're wondering (or worried) it's not salacious – in fact I was continually surprised by the different approaches to the subject and in some cases, the way the stories themselves played out. There isn't a dull tale among these and I'd be hard pushed to pick a favourite because so many of them made me think and stayed with me long after I'd put the book down. 

One of the authors in Losing It that I hadn't read before, was Bali Rai, so when I saw this collection of his short stories I bought it. The author's note describes the collection as "rough and ready". Bali Rai writes "I'm just telling it like it is – because I was there too." And you have to believe him. These stories are raw, edgy and at times uncomfortable reading – I was gripped. One of the things I enjoyed most was how the same group of inner-city teenagers kept re-appearing, playing secondary or walk-on roles in each other's stories. By the time I'd read to the end, I wanted to go back and read them all again, now I knew the characters better. There's a lot of music in these stories too, which meant I spent far too much time looking up the tunes … 

The Truth is Dead had been on my shelf for a few months. I thought the premise of this collection was great. Each story took a moment in history and looked at "how things might have turned out if one or two factors had been just that little bit different." I can't say too much about it without giving the game away, but I learnt a few things along the way and the stories here certainly made me think how the outcome of events can turn on a single decision or twist of fate.

The two books from my original list that I did read, were Code Name Verity and At Yellow Lake. 

Jane McLoughlin's young adult thriller follows three teenagers from radically different backgrounds, and the series of events that eventually brings them together at the lake mentioned in the title. I really enjoyed the way the action and narrative voice switched between the three stories, gradually twisting them together with a sense of chilling inevitability. Each of the three protagonists was engaging and believable. If I had to choose a favourite it would be Etta, for her sense of humour and kick-ass attitude. On the front of the book, Anne Cassidy describes At Yellow Lake as "A page-turning story, which oozes menace" and I can't argue with that. The final hundred pages kept me entertained and gnawing at my fingernails for the entire five hour train journey home from the Edinburgh Book Festival.

And so to Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. My first read of the summer and, nine months into the year, a strong candidate for my favourite book of 2012. I was hooked from the first page. It's one of those stories that you find yourself thinking about when you're not reading. Set partly in occupied France during the Second World War, the narrative is full of misdirection and subterfuge. It's a beautifully written story, with the kind of characters you enjoy spending time with. There are some harrowing scenes too, but the horror is never gratuitous. For a while I was worried that after such a superb start and intricately woven plot, the ending might not deliver. But Code Name Verity provides a great climax – the only disappointment at the end, is that the story is over.

So, that's it. The summer is over already and I still have unread books on my shelf and a new pile waiting to join them. I'm still in short story mode, so Keith Gray's latest collection, Next is already lined up to be read … well, next! It's a collection of stories based around the question 'Is there life after death?' Then, there's Geekhood by Andy Robb, which my thirteen year old devoured in a matter of days and has told me I MUST read. But I might follow Next with The Night Sky in My Head by Sarah Hammond which I've heard good things about, or maybe White Dolphin, the new book by Gill Lewis, author of the superb Sky Hawk, one of my favourite books of last year. If only there were more hours in the day …

How did you get on with your summer reads? Leave me a comment and let me know. I'm always up for a recommendation, even if my shelves are struggling under the strain.